Tennis balls whiz at Kelly Olynyk, again and again. Each bears a number or letter, cues for a choreographed movement. There’s no time to think, only to catch and react in the drill that would help change everything. And that’s the point: don’t think.
“A high basketball IQ.” That’s the term basketball types often use to describe Kelly Olynyk, a 7-footer out of Gonzaga whom the Celtics acquired in the first round of June’s NBA draft.
His background checks out: an Academic All-American who graduated with an accounting degree in 3½ years; who is one year from earning his MBA; who has that rare affinity for numbers and equations because of their beautiful simplicity.
“You’re either right or wrong,” said Olynyk, whose Orlando Summer League performance (18 points, 7.8 rebounds per game) made him an intriguing story line heading into a rebuilding season.
His brain is one with gears always in churn, gauging possibilities, searching for answers, as it has for years.
When he was 7, he decided he’d make his living playing basketball, but his parents said to keep a backup plan, and he told them, that, OK, he’d become a farmer if Plan A failed.
He decided he’d become a farmer because growing up in Toronto, he saw the homeless, the men and women invisible to daily passersby but not yet to him.
And he believed that if he tilled the soil and planted seed, he could grow them food.
“I just felt, I don’t know, I just wanted to help people,” he said. “I was a little kid.”
A problem, a solution — at least in part. But this notion of helping, which became a central theme to his identity as a player, was further reinforced under his father’s basketball tutelage.
Olynyk played point guard on the youth team, and Ken Olynyk, a 6-6 former college basketball forward long involved in the Canadian national team, had a rule that the point guard on his team could pass, and only pass, but could not score, period.
“Your job is to get the ball to other people and make other people better,” the elder Olynyk preached.
And when Olynyk was in high school, where his father again coached him and Olynyk again played the point, that rule still held: Help yourself and the team by helping others first.
Then Olynyk grew . . . and grew, from 6-3 to 6-10 in one year, and to 7 feet soon after.
No longer could he play point guard and focus on helping others. He had to focus on helping himself, which meant, in no small part, overcoming himself — and his brilliant mind.
After playing for the Canadian junior men’s national team, Olynyk arrived at Gonzaga as promising and skilled, with strong opinions about the game and how he fit into it.
“He wanted to hang out on the 3-point line and be Dirk Nowitzki,” said Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd. “But his 3-point percentage wasn’t really good, and he was turning the ball over at a high rate because he wasn’t strong enough to drive and handle contact and absorb contact.”
Plus, there were simply better and more experienced frontline players ahead of him: Robert Sacre (7 feet), Sam Dower (6-9), and Elias Harris (6-8).
“There were a lot of minutes to split between a lot of good guys and Kelly,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few.
Given the logjam, and his need to develop, Olynyk, coming off a sophomore year averaging 5.8 points and 13.5 minutes, decided to redshirt, a highly unusual mid-career move for a college player.
“It’s tough to make that sacrifice,” he said, “but when you think about it, you need to make sacrifices in order to make gains in life.”
The move became the turning point in his college career.
First, by not playing, he couldn’t use postgame stat sheets to measure improvement. He didn’t have to worry about being ready for games or resting. He could just work for about 18 months.
But Olynyk’s mind still functioned as if he were a point guard, as he had been for most of his life. It hadn’t caught up to his new, 7-foot frame. “I knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go,” he said, “but I just couldn’t get there physically.”
The goal then became, beyond making him stronger through traditional and non-traditional weightlifting sessions, which packed on about 15 pounds, to slow down Olynyk’s busy mind.
That’s where the tennis balls came in — an unusual drill that focused on neurological training.
Every day, for the better part of a half-hour, Travis Knight, Gonzaga’s strength and conditioning coach, would from close range toss Olynyk tennis balls bearing a number or letter that represented a complicated movement, maybe a stepback jumper from the left side, or a shot-fake, dribble, then shot from the right. Or something else.
“We had to get to a point where he didn’t have to think about all these movements,” said Knight, a former infielder for the Gonzaga baseball team who believes strongly in hand-eye coordination.
The drill, Knight said, helped train Olynyk’s brain to function more on a subconscious level.
“It helped me, furthermore, to be able to read plays and slow the game down,” Olynyk said. “And when I came in, I could see plays happening, see plays developing, and really slow down and take a step back and really be integrated into the play rather than having everything be a whirlwind.”
But it wasn’t a drill you’d be likely to find anywhere else.
“He was like the Frankenstein monster, and I was like the mad scientist, and we were just experimenting,” Knight said.
Another aspect that improved his game that offseason was that in several practices, the rule was that he had to stay in the paint and only the paint, where he battled Sacre, Harris, and Dower, players with different styles.
Sacre, who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, was all muscle at 260 pounds, forcing Olynyk to use pump fakes and footwork to score. Harris was a bit undersized, but athletic and strong, combating Olynyk’s size with his athleticism. Dower, at 6-9, had the wingspan of a 7-footer, presenting yet another challenge. “And you had to react differently to every guy,” Olynyk said.
Yet another factor in his mental development came in games, when the coaches incorporated Olynyk into a graduate assistant role, having him chart various stats, such as rebounds, or focusing on a handful of other elements.
At halftime, they asked what he saw, how he felt the team was executing, what changes he suggested. He often shared their frustrations if a game plan wasn’t being followed.
“It helped me see what they wanted in certain situations,” Olynyk said, “and what they were saying and what they were preaching and asking for and how you could accomplish that.”
Few praises Olynyk, calling him intelligent, a quick learner with a creative side to his brain who’s always pondering different methods, moves or ways to attack.
“Sometimes that can be a strength of his, and sometimes that can be a weakness, too,” Few said.
Olynyk conceded that point, noting that it worked against him sometimes in games.
“You’re thinking, ‘Oh, I thought this guy was going to do this because that’s what I would’ve done because it was the smart thing to do,’ but sometimes people wouldn’t do that,” he said.
And, overall, Few said it was tough changing Olynyk’s mind about the player he thought he was.
“Once he gets going on his, ‘This is my interpretation . . . ’ it’s like, ‘No, Kelly, it’s not about your interpretation. It’s about our interpretation,’ ” Few said. “That’s a little bit about what held him back earlier, in his first two years.
“He was like, ‘Well, this is my interpretation of what I think my game should be — a 3-point shooter.’
“It’s like, ‘No, we can utilize that, but at 7 feet tall, with your size, we’re going to have to mix in, at least 50 percent of some things inside the paint.’ ”
But once his mind and body began functioning in tandem, once he became more comfortable reading the game and using size and mobility to create mismatches, Olynyk blossomed.
Gonzaga went 32-3 and he became a consensus All-American and the West Coast Conference Player of the Year, averaging 17.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.1 blocks, and 26.4 minutes. He was third in the nation in field goal shooting (62.9 percent).
“He’s in a way better place now, as far as, he understands that he can’t let that creative side be more dominant than the intellectual side,” Few said.
Just as Olynyk believes that there is a right and a wrong to equations, so too does he believe that there is a right and wrong to basketball — and it’s all in adapting.
“It’s ever-changing and you have to be able to adapt to your surroundings and your skill set and your competition and what will work and what won’t,” Olynyk said.
“It’s basically the most adapted person wins.”
So that’s what he did — adapt and change.
Steve Konchalski, a longtime fixture with the Canadian national team, very much noticed the difference.
“Back four years ago, he was too content to stand out at the 3-point line,” Konchalski said.
Then, after watching Olynyk play summer league, Konchalski said, “He played inside, outside, he got to the boards, he had a couple little tricky moves inside, scoop shots, that sort of thing, which you don’t usually see 7-footers do.”
When Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge introduced Olynyk a few days after the team traded up three spots in the draft to acquire him with the 13th overall pick, Ainge described Olynyk as skilled, smart, calm. Ainge said he sees Olynyk weighing 260 pounds (20 more than he does now) and as a power forward who can play center occasionally.
“I don’t see Kelly as a go-to guy in the NBA,” Ainge added, “but a guy that complements the rest of the guys on the team and makes them all better.”
Not a “go-to” player? Some took that as a jab. Olynyk said he hasn’t thought much about it.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “I just need to make sure I maximize my potential.”
A safe answer, but the term “complementary player” carries a negative connotation in the US more than elsewhere, and it’s worth noting that Olynyk’s game is international, first and foremost.
“The foreign player’s idea of a good basketball player was someone who could get 15 points, 15 rebounds, and 15 assists in a game,” said his father, Ken, who played four years at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and is the athletic director at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia.
“So, that’s the format that Kelly always tried to emulate.”
Said Olynyk, “It’s easier to score 30 points than it is to do that,” he said, referencing the above numbers in three different categories.
“Playing internationally and seeing how valuable that is to another team is something that every kid should strive for,” he added, “but it’s definitely not portrayed like that in the media or in people’s eyes today, especially [in the United States].”
No, not in this “SportsCenter,” highlight-driven culture, filled with slam dunks and ankle-breaking crossovers.
But he’s at peace with not being a go-to guy, anyway.
“What you want is a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts,” Olynyk said, quoting Aristotle.
Or, as Few said, “I can’t overstate just how big of a team guy he is.”
Olynyk credits his father for that mind-set.
“One of the things he always told me when I was younger, good players can score, but great players can make the people around them better,” Olynyk said.
That was especially true in football, which Olynyk played in high school, quarterbacking the South Kamloops Titans.
Not only was Olynyk fascinated with the fact that every play could be a game-breaker, but also that everyone had to work as one on every play for that play to have any success.
“Obviously, you can’t throw the ball and catch the ball,” he said. “You’ve got to put your teammates in a position to succeed, and I think that’s something you have to do as a point guard as well — or anybody on a basketball floor.”
The Celtics signed Olynyk to his rookie deal in the midst of his summer league dominance, and new coach Brad Stevens said it should be Olynyk’s goal to make the All-Rookie Team.
Olynyk will wear No. 41 with the Celtics, just like Nowitzki wears with Dallas, but Olynyk swears that he picked that number because there weren’t many options with the Celtics, who have retired many through their rich history.
Nevertheless, it was Nowitzki to whom many Celtics fans and a few others compared Olynyk after watching summer league. And when asked for his impressions of Olynyk, Celtics forward Shavlik Randolph jokingly replied, “Oh, you mean Dirk? He’s very impressive.”
They share a fair-colored mane and a scruffy goatee that comforts their chin, but the comparisons can wait. Olynyk’s mind is on overdrive as it is, gears churning, gauging possibilities, searching for answers, adapting, always adapting, to this ever-changing game.